Carjacked: A Reflection On A Manipulative Relationship
UPDATED: 01/31, 5PM small corrections and small additions for clarity.
Our dreams of cars and our real lives with cars are constructed with the help of a series of powerful myths and values that warrant a closer look.
~ Carjacked, pg 11 by Catherine Lutz & Anne Lutz Fernandez
Carjacked won’t be for everyone; it ought to be.
It’s basic premise isn’t anti-car, although it certainly will be applauded by those focused on dividing people into one camp or another. It could do that if it simply listed the statistics woven in between its narration. They offer some poignant perspectives on our devotion to cars. There are many sections where the data will cause the most number adverse to pause for longer than most of us spend looking for our car-keys.
For an example, let me choose a detail at random…The first one I came to is on page 94, in the chapter titled “The Catch: What We Really Pay”, the authors look at where our tax dollars go and use Denver to show that it’s more than money going towards roads and bridges; there’s an entire system that breeds its own economy. In the mile high city, 40% of police activities, “15% of its fire department deployments, and 16% of its paramedic services are centered on automobiles.” (Another argument for traffic calming in coordination with enforcement)
It’s Not A War, We All Share Responsibility
Carjacked is not an attack on America’s obsession, rather it’s an anthropological exploration. Laying the facts and observations on the driveway and seeing the love affair for what it is: an odd relationship that is more manipulative and controlled than most ever realize. Yes, the tool itself has led to some competitive advantages and connected rural areas to the core areas in ways that 100 years ago were only dreams. But the love affair is manufactured through a cultural economic system that puts the majority of its energy into promoting, sustaining and subsidizing the single occupant vehicle.
In chapter 3, “The Pitch: How They Sell“, the authors describe how at an early age, and car companies know this, that our views of cars and social status are beginning to be developed and for some people those last a lifetime. One study shows how by second grade, children “had developed well-formed stereotypes about the kinds of people who owned different makes and models of cars.” As intended, that observation got me thinking about my childhood and my own relationship with cars.
The Family Car As A Needy Member Of The Family
By second grade, I was seeing first hand how dependence on the automobile stresses a family. What I saw on television didn’t match reality. I didn’t see a single commercial with a family stalled on the side of the road.
We weren’t poor and we weren’t wealthy. The cars my step-father pieced together and “kept on the road” certainly weren’t newer models. They were however, as I’ve written before, rather large. I recall countless weekends playing in and around the garage while he “tinkered” and “maintained” what seemed to be a fleet of family cars that were in various stages of road-worthiness. Having a dependable car was a family predicament that often rose to priority status. On those long days, with me typically handing tools as they were called for, I acquired my robust handle on creative expletives that would make George Carlin proud.
What I didn’t learn was an affinity for mechanics. It really seemed too stressful, dirty and aggressive. I’ve later grown to philosophically appreciate the Zen and grace a mechanic can show, but not in time to inherit the desire to attempt more than shallow-basics. I also didn’t acquire the cultural attachment to automobiles. They’ve never been anything more than a mobility tool. Or, as I like to call them, 2-ton transportation pods.
Irresponsible Car Ownership
My own car ownership began when I was 16 and I’ve been a fickle friend to a series of automobiles. To the point of shameful neglect to the cars of my earlier life. My first four cars may just still be in a scrap-yard pasture somewhere in Benzie County. They never rose to a level of high importance or as treasured assets. They were simply a background character. The relationship began with a series of hand-me-downs that might as well have emerged out of the hard-packed gravel of the driveway-they sure looked that way. I had no concrete idea where they came from even when there was an exchange of a few hundred dollars.
My first honest purchase was a blue 1973 Nova for $200. I put no money into it; not even an oil change. It ran for just under a year. I remember the very odd parental look-over the car received when I started to drive an attractive classmate to school. She made it quite safely every-time and walked quickly away from the car and me once it came to a rest in the school parking lot, every-time. Anticipating its last hurrah, I entered the Nova into the homecoming ugly car contest. I secured a win by letting fellow students kick and beat it during the contest. I recall two students using it as a trampoline for 10-minutes. For the parade, friends and I sawed it into a t-top and mounted a plastic chicken on the hood. When I finally made it home that night it spat and sputtered to a rest in a big puff of blue smoke. I was once again carless.
Entering adulthood, I half-heartedly entered the intentional car market. I bought a Sunbird from my sister that functioned well, because she said I needed one. It ended up wrapped around a telephone pole on one of the worst ice-storms of the year before I could pay her off. I somehow walked away without serious injury other than a mild concussion (which may come to haunt me later) and a new appreciation for investing the extra money into good tires. I was carless until I really upped the intention and had my father co-sign for a personal loan with the intention of purchasing a newer-used car. It must have bothered him, a lifelong GM employee, that the car I settled on was a Nissan Sentra: boxy, basic and foreign. With brand new tires on it (my first purchase) it took my friends and I on many road trips all over Michigan and points further afield. “Anyone for a trip to South Carolina for a weekend? Let’s go. We’ll be back by Sunday night.” Good times.
I took better care of the Sentra, but slowly became disenchanted. After 2 years, I took the insurance off of it to experiment with being carless. There were some environmental rationale, as well as financial reasoning, but really, I simply didn’t like always being car dependent and found, for the most part, walking and biking the 3-miles to college worked just fine. It took about 4-months of it sitting in the driveway until I made the final plunge. I sold it and only regretted it on a few occasions. For most of the 90′s I was in effect carless, although I often rented, borrowed or hitched rides with friends. It’s difficult to have a robust social life in Northern Michigan without a car, so I often paid for gas. I also was now able to save money fast and began my travels to Asia.
Anyway, now that I’ve lived in Northern Michigan for 9-straight years and I’m in my 30′s (read more responsible-supposedly), I’ve realized car ownership might not be required, but it certainly has advantages. It’s a privilege of wealth (relative) and most of our household trips fit the national norm of under 2-miles. It makes life convenient, but it isn’t necessary.
My experience with cars, I recognize, has opened me up to the ideas, observations and data presented in Carjacked and for further questioning of our car devotion. I can read it without becoming defensive and seeing it as a “war on cars.” It is raising questions similar to the mission of this BLOG, which when it is performing its best is advancing our understanding of the use of public space as it relates to people and how our tools and the values associated with them shape our choices and create dependence, not freedom.
As the authors write of the challenge near the beginning of the book:
“Each of these values provides a pillar of the temple of car mythology that we must first understand in order to see how these myths have shielded our view of what thew car system really looks like. Uncovering these myths allows us to rethink our relationship with the car and genuinely pursue or even rethink our core values.“
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FYI: Monday’s Quote Series is now the Well Put series.
- The Carless Generation, Charles W. Moore, Miscellaneous Ramblings (lowendmac.com)
- Committing to the carless life (eemusings.wordpress.com)
- Carlessness, Cluelessness, the Boomer Legacy, and More, Charles W. Moore, Charles Moore’s Mailbag (lowendmac.com)